Inspiration – plagiarism – copying – the subconscious

One of the assignments in the photography courses that I teach is the Chain of Inspiration: one student takes a first photo that starts the chain. A week later, the next student takes a photograph which is visually inspired by the first. Over the course of 12 weeks, together we create a Chain of Inspiration.

The other day, I was scrolling through the blog of a big inspiration of mine, Steve McCurry. I came across the following image:

The image looked familiar to me, like something I had seen before in my own work. It felt a bit like hearing a familiar song and being able to sing along to the lyrics, but if someone asked you to sing the song off the top of your head, you couldn’t.

So I started a dig in my archives and found the following:

The photograph was taken in Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, China. It is quite likely that I had seen the McCurry image before setting off to China, but I am not sure. Maybe what I saw (and what Steve McCurry saw) both originated in an image by Henri Cartier Bresson:

Given the years in which the photographs where taken (Bresson 1961, McCurry after 1950, mine 2009) it is quite likely that the chain of inspiration here is simply chronological.

Inspiration? Plagiarism? Copying? Or subconscious influences?

Below is a quote from the song “Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths. Although the song is about literature, it could equally apply to the visual arts:

If you must write prose/poems
The words you use should be your own
Don’t plagiarise or take “on loan”
‘Cause there’s always someone, somewhere
With a big nose, who knows
And who trips you up and laughs
When you fall

The boundaries between inspiration, plagiarism and copying will forever be vague, and there may not necessarily be someone with a big nose waiting to trip you up. However, it may well be a good idea to be aware of one’s influences in today’s transparent internet world.


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